Council note blames keeper for her death: family

By Danielle Nicholson -

The family of the zookeeper killed by a tiger at Hamilton Zoo last year are horrified a letter sent to Australasian zoos appears to blame the keeper for her death.

Samantha Kudeweh was killed by a Sumatran tiger on September 20 when she was carrying out routine duties in the tiger display enclosure.

Hamilton City Council pleaded guilty last Thursday to a Worksafe prosecution which alleged the council failed to take all practical steps to ensure the 43-year-old was not exposed to hazards arising out of working with the tiger.

The letter, signed by Hamilton Zoo director Stephen Standley, said "although we felt our tiger management systems and processes were adequate and met MPI standards, there is more that we could have done to ensure staff were safe in the event of human error - particularly those managing dangerous animals. It is no longer enough to rely on procedures as people make mistakes. We therefore need to identify engineered solutions that prevent human error resulting in staff ending up in the same space as a dangerous animal."

Click here to read the full letter

The letter, issued last Thursday, appears to have been circulated to zoos belonging to the Zoo and Aquarium Association - the body representing the zoo and aquarium community throughout Australasia.

Samantha's husband Richard Kudeweh said he took umbrage with that part of the letter.

"My problem with it is that it implies by saying human error that Sam is responsible for what has happened. There are details of what actually happened that will never be known, but the bit we do know is that keepers relied upon procedures to keep themselves safe.

"As far as we know, Sam did everything as she should to the best of her knowledge on September 20. But because the council made some massive errors in 2013 in their investigations, Sam was killed."

Last October, a Hamilton News investigation revealed an incident at Hamilton Zoo in 2013, where another tiger made its way into the main tiger display enclosure where a keeper was working, was also the result of gates being left open. In the incident, the path taken by tigress Sali as she made her way into the display enclosure where the keeper was preparing to give a tiger talk was through a personnel area fenced only by a non-electrified weed mat-clad 1.8m fence.

Hamilton City Council said at the time the safety of the public was never compromised and pinned the blame on the keeper who left a gate open.

Had the tiger breached the 1.8m fence, it would have done so into zoo grounds accessible by staff and could potentially have breached another fence into the public part of the zoo. It is well documented tigers can jump up to four metres.

Hamilton News asked Hamilton City Council if the wording of the letter was appropriate given last week's guilty plea.

General manager community Lance Vervoort said "we're very disappointed that a private communication from our zoo director has found its way to the media. That's a real concern for us. It was intended for industry colleagues only".

The letter is publicly available on the internet, apparently posted online as part of an Australian zoo's newsletter update to its staff.

"We stand by the comments we've made following our Worksafe NZ prosecution guilty plea - we should've done more to engineer out risk with our tiger management. Sam should still be with us," said Mr Vervoort.

"All the statements we have made have been factual. Media outlets have implied we've made Sam some sort of scapegoat. That is absolutely not the case. We have made it very clear that council accepts responsibility for her death and our guilty plea demonstrates this. We've told Sam's family that, too."

The letter also stated the council had commissioned an artist to produce a bronze statue of a white rhino calf to be placed in the zoo as a memorial for Samantha.

The Hamilton City Council did not respond to questions about who the artist was, how much the statue would cost and when it was likely to be unveiled.

"Details on a memorial for Sam will be made public at an appropriate time," said Mr Vervoort.

Judge Sharon Otene last week convicted the council and remanded it to reappear for sentencing on September 13, a week before the anniversary of Mrs Kudeweh's death. The charge carries a maximum fine of $250,000.

Following the court hearing, a media conference was held where Hamilton City Council chief executive Richard Briggs and general manager community Lance Vervoort confirmed no one would lose their job over Sam's death.

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